Pranks and practical jokes are, for the most part, incongruous little moments of humor injected into an otherwise pedestrian moment in time. Well, at least they’re humorous to one of the people involved. Even a moment like a birthday celebration, for all the emphasis we place on it at varying points in our lives, is not immune to the chicanery of some wise ass with a smirk and an idea.
Of all the silly pranks performed during a birthday, I’ve always thought trick candles were the most nakedly cruel. Most of the moments in birthday celebration are either tolerably boring, mildly endearing, or even warmly appreciative. It’s supposed to be a happy time and while no one really seems to mind a bit of roasted ridicule thrown into the pot, it’s also quite deflating. The trick candles used on a birthday cake raise the stakes and add a moment of public shame to the awkward melange already stewing.
From the perspective of an average 10 year-old, birthdays are solely about gifts and friends. In some ways, that ignorance is blissful. Few worry about the number of years they’ve lived or that “it’s just another day.” So, when this hypothetical 10 year-old hears that its parent is about to bring in the cake, the demeanor of the celebration changes. Close friends and relatives angle for a better view. Other children look on with a sense of jealousy at not being the center of attention, or just boredom only buffered by the promise of cake.
Meanwhile, some “funny” relative with a terrible sense of humor halts the process and produces a pack of trick candles as if they were some sort of illicit drug. “How fun would it be to put these on his cake and watch him try to blow them out?” he excitedly explains. The candles are swapped out with the standard ones, they’re lit as usual, the lights dim, and the cacophonous chorus begins it’s celebratory song.
It’s a singular moment in time where a person might feel real appreciation from those who know them best and perhaps the practical joke shows that. At the same time, the guest of honor also joyfully makes a wish (and we all still do, don’t fool yourself) before letting forth a gust of breath in the hopes of blowing out each candle before their wind is exhausted. As we all know, that’s the only way your wish can come true.
And perhaps you succeed, only to find that after a few sparking crackles, candles begin to reignite on their own. In just a few seconds, your wish is dashed, your face wears an obvious sense of befuddlement, and the throng of well-wishers erupt in guffaws, snorts, and chuckles at having put one past you.
I’m not saying that trick candles are inherently cruel or that good natured pranksters are actually terrible people. On a different level, though, that moment of sudden disappointment and confusion resonates across a variety of experiences throughout one’s life. It’s something you’ll tap into time and time again, more unaware of its impending arrival in each instance.
Perhaps you spend a fair amount of money on something you desired, only to find disappointment upon its unboxing. Perhaps you took a new job, one that seemed like a sure thing, only to find that it was anything but. Perhaps you take a chance and tell someone how true and pure your feelings are for them only to be met with that profoundly confused facial expression of a mind searching for both a way out of the moment and an exit from the friendship.
Whether you’ve betrayed someone’s trust too deeply, broken too many promises, or given in to negativity and stress too frequently, there are people who, without blaming or judging them for their motives, invite you to extinguish the candle of resentment and then silently revel when it reignites before your eyes.
Some of us of a certain composition fall for this over and over again, believing that more air or better aimed gusts will certainly get the job done, not knowing that it is the chemical impurity in the wick, and not the flame, that sets us up for failure.
The deck is stacked. The game is rigged. The football will always be pulled away at the last moment, and the candle will not stay blown out. You’re not allowed to succeed because seeing your squirming disappointment is the goal, not the comical pause on the way to a hoped for moment of shared happiness.
In life, we’re often set up for failure by those we most sincerely wish would want to succeed alongside us. Whether it’s justified bitterness or unrecognized narcissism fueling the charade, some of us are taken in again and again by it. We’re placed atop the cake, in the position we most desperately seek to be in, and our flame is lit carefully by the object of our desire.
The warmth of the fire surrounds us, our hardened exterior begins to melt, and the purity of light and purpose begin to radiate effortlessly, made of pure air and the fuel we didn’t realize we still carried. It is a singularly beautiful and simple moment. A face we want to trust and want to please leans close and we believe. For a moment, all is very nearly right and then…
There is another way to look at this, though. Just as the master’s tools can be used to dismantle his own house, a trick candle’s connotation can be both negative and positive, depending on one’s perspective.
What if we learned a lesson from the trick candle, whose wick is infused with magnesium that stays hot enough to reignite the candle without a new flame? What if we realized that all we needed to radiate light and purpose already exists inside of us? What if the furious breath of someone bent on extinguishing our fire could be rebuffed time and time again?
Would we not be a symbol of fragile persistence? Would we not finally discover that it is only within ourselves that we can find the source of peace and happiness we hoped to create? Would we learn to not derive it from others, especially those whose goal is to extinguish our fire instead of allowing it to grow?
And so the valediction lies within. A trick candle can be used to humiliate someone when they’re most vulnerable. It can also be used to flash indomitable self-assurance at those whose hearts are bent on seeing our happiness disappear into a thin trail of smoke. And then…